“No need to heed your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. […] Re-writing you I rewrite myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still coloniser, the speaking subject, and you are now the centre of my tale.”[i]
During my first comparative educational experience while on IHP we were tasked with writing reflections at the end of our time in each city. IHP was a lot of firsts for me including the first time I spent an intensive and large amount of time with US Americans (yes, yes even though I studied in the US), and my initial exposure to social movements and to an alive socialism. At the end of 5 weeks in Brazil I wrote about something I had had on my mind during that time – the question of writing, narratives and identities. Below I expound on these thoughts.
We write not only by writing but also by speaking, and the way in which we write and who writes, has the power to define people. We write people by labels we use, by not going deeper; and we can write people into something they’re not- a caricature of themselves- or even write them out by our silences.
bell hooks in the quote above discusses this power of writing and authorship especially by authors outside of the experiences of those of whom they write. Authors can appropriate narratives of the oppressed of whom they write – narratives of suffering and pain, and in this way continue to perpetuate the original oppressive dynamic set up by the author-coloniser-master with the power, and the pen. ‘No need to hear your voice’ yet I am writing about you. The author knows all they need to know from information and sources one can only guess at.
Within this framework of power and agency accruing to those with the power to write and to tell someone’s story, I have been struck by the instances in which class readings and discussions embodied the agency-denying side of authorship; but also by lectures and site-visits where I met people reclaiming the right to write themselves.
Many times we have argued about the use of labels that are condescending, factually incorrect, or that exclude people while at the same time never moving past the use of such words (‘Sub–Saharan Africa’; ‘Third World’; ‘Global South’; ‘developing/developed’). In discussions and presentations classmates have spoken about people living in poverty, favelas and occupied buildings in a way that denied their agency and presented them as though they were not part of humanity like the rest of ‘us’.
For example, there was mention in one session of a “native” group of musicians seen playing in República Plaza, SP, but as a group discovered by talking to them, they were an itinerant Salasaca group from Ecuador travelling and playing music in South American countries. It did not suit the interests of the original group to put in the effort to find out exactly who these people were, or what they were about. It suited them better, and was a lot easier (took less energy) to interpret the situation as they saw it. In all these instances I realise that ways of speaking and writing people have often been inherited, but the constant apathy towards going deeper and towards specificity and complexity only perpetuates these dynamics- in a damning way. In a way that keeps power firmly in the author-coloniser-master’s hands.
The work of dismantling and changing unfair and unjust power dynamics takes energy. I have been impressed by the fact that there are groups of people reversing the tropes and writing themselves in their own words. An extract: the first Brazilian history lecture we had constantly referenced Brazilian authors and none of the U.S. authors of Brazilian history that I was accustomed to from Latin American history courses in the U.S. ever came up. Soweto Organização Negra works to change understandings and representations of Afrobrazilians in this country where the myth of a racial democracy is prevalent, one social action at a time. Pixação artists make their mark on the city to resist whatever else society might say about them, and resist as well, the silence that society has concerning them. The social movement, MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) has created their own school curriculum that has rural protagonists and that tells the history of resistance through land occupations as an alternative to the urban curriculum provided by the Ministry of Education that is silent about their struggles and victories.
All these and many more examples of people taking up the reins of their own definition and telling their own stories give me hope. In the words of the proverb,[ii] the lion is learning to speak and the hunter’s glorious position is no longer secure.
If we are on the side of social justice, we must expend the energy it takes to go deeper, to ask questions, to stay silent, to listen, and to write, in every instance, meaningfully and carefully because we are writing people.
[i] bell hooks, ‘Marginalising a Site of Resistance’ in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture. 1990.
[ii] The proverb referenced is: “Gnatola ma no kpon sia, eyenabe adelan to kpo mi sena” (Ewe-Mina), here translated as ‘until the lion learns how to speak, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’.